UCC congregations support homeless populations during cold winter months
Since the beginning of November, about 20 young adults have been living in the parking lot of University Congregational United Church of Christ. Most of them are used to this lifestyle, growing up as homeless teens on Seattle’s city streets. But in the encampment in the church’s parking lot, they have found a safe place they can count on where they can get a good night’s rest, and have also found a sense of community. For University Congregational, where homeless ministry has been a cornerstone of the church for the past 25 years, offering up this space is a way to fulfill a vital community need.
“It’s been a call that we’ve had,” said the Rev. Catherine Foote, pastor of University Congregational UCC in Seattle. “There is a need in our neighborhood and we have the resources and long-term experience in ways we can be helpful.”
This is the third time University Congregational has hosted a parking lot encampment, and the current group is permitted to stay until the end of January. According to Seattle laws, churches are able to use their property in pursuit of their ministry without regulations, so the members of the encampment can rest assured they won’t be bothered by police and that their belongings will be safe. The church provides concrete barriers, firewood, an outhouse, electricity and running water, and members often donate supplies such as blankets, tarps and warm gloves. The church recently provided the group a holiday meal and intends to do something similar at Christmas.
Members of the encampment bring their own tents for shelter and designate individuals to provide 24-hour security – which one time prevented a break-in at the church. The group is self-governed, Foote says, and hosts regular meetings, which she tries to attend when she can.
“What I love about encampments is that they are self-organized communities,” Foote said. “They are a group of people saying, ‘Can you provide us sanctuary as we organize ourselves and care for one another?’ – not, ‘Can you take care of us?'”
Foote has also spent a night sleeping in each encampment her church has hosted as a way to interact with the people involved. It’s also a humble reminder of how hard life can be for those without a place to go at the end of the day.
“It’s been an eye-opening experience with how tough it is, but also for how helpful an encampment community can be during that time,” she said. “It’s just been a wonderful journey, meeting these people.”
St. John’s UCC in Boalsburg, Pa., is another UCC congregation engaged with homeless residents in it’s community. The church is one of 12 members of Out of the Cold: Centre County, a program that launched in 2010 to provide warm, safe spaces for those in need during the coldest months of the year, October through May. For two to three weeks each November, St. John’s UCC hosts up to 15 guests per night in its fellowship hall and Sunday school rooms, and provides them a cot, blankets, a hygiene kit, food and drinks. The situations of people who utilize the program run the gamut and they range in age from 20 to 60.
“Some people are working and just need a place to stay while they save up money for an apartment,” said the Rev. Monica Ouellette, pastor of St. John’s UCC. “We have others with mental illness who probably will never get out of the program, and we have people in between who are in hard economic times. But we have had numerous success stories of people using the program and then finding permanent housing.”
It takes a number of volunteers, mostly congregation members, for the church to participate in Out of the Cold. One person is needed to check in the guests each night, two to three people are required to stay overnight to supervise the group, and another six to eight people prepare hot meals. Volunteers also set up the cots and clean the building after each night’s stay, some take home blankets to be washed and dried, and still others donate warm clothing and toiletries. The daycare students even pitched in, making each guest a fleece scarf last year.
Ouellette says the number of people served by the program has grown each year, along with her church’s commitment to remain an active part of such important ministry.
“Because it’s so hands on, it takes real commitment from our congregation to make it work,” she said. “All of that takes time and energy. It’s really something the whole congregation can get involved in in some way or another.”
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